Picturesque depictions of pioneer life and early farming often show split rail or ‘snake’
fences as they were sometimes called. One can almost imagine a pioneer woman contemplating a new quilt and being inspired by the zigzag pattern of these fences which were so common then. Although they have virtually disappeared in our area, in more recent times this style of fence has been constructed for aesthetic reasons rather than the more practical ones of the early pioneers.
When non-native people came to settle along the Thames River in the late 1700’s, they came to a heavily forested wilderness. The huge trees were both a blessing and a curse. Using
nothing more than an axe they felled the trees first to make shelters and clearings for crops then tools, furniture and fences.
Although a rail fence requires much more wood than other types of fencing, this was the one commodity that the pioneer had in abundance. Such a fence was simple to construct, required few tools and no nails or hardware as such items were unavailable to the pioneers.
It was also very versatile as it could be built on hard or rocky ground where digging post holes was impossible and it could be easily disassembled for removal or another purpose.
In Kent County rail fences were used until about 1900 and were generally made from black ash which was long lasting and easy to split. Red oak was another choice and in the eastern part of the county it was walnut.
When a snake fence was replaced by a straight fence neighbours often argued over who was the rightful owner of the newly available strip of land!
At the time of the War of 1812, rail fences were very important to the inhabitants of this area. Not only did they delineate property lines but they kept livestock corralled and gardens, fields and animals safe from wild predators. At the time of the Battle of the Thames many of these fences were destroyed as thousands of soldiers, Indian warriors, families and refugees burnt them for warmth and cooking fires. When these property owners petitioned the government after the war fence rails were the most common item for which restitution was sought.
SOURCES: Romantic Kent by Victor Lauriston
Heritage Canada from Reader’s Digest
Greater Evils by Glenn Stott
5047 Tecumseh Line, Tilbury, ON
Latitude : 42.33414 Longitude : -82.38402